Know the garment sector right
The tragic incident of building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in Savar last month shocked the entire world. Reactions poured in from around the globe, including the Pope, the International Labour Organisation, the US government, the European Union and many others.
US President Barack Obama expressed his deepest concern about the incident and prayed for the salvation of the departed souls.
The Pope has condemned as “slave labour” the working conditions of the garment workers.
The Pope further said: "Not paying a just wage, not giving work, only because one is looking at the bottom line, at the budget of the company, seeking only profit -- that is against God."
The Pope's words were his toughest on workers' rights.
We respect his intention. Yet, I should say the comment does not exactly reflect the true status of the workers in the industry.
The last two pay scales given by government in 2006 and 2010 were strictly implemented by all factories. Today, more than 90 percent of the workers are paid over the prevailing scale. This will go up further due to interaction of demand and supply, which like other commodities determine the price of the labour as well. Workers are not easily available now, even at the entry level.
The EU, consisting of 27 countries and importing 60 percent of total exports of garments from Bangladesh and allowing 12.5 percent duty rebate, too reacted very sharply. An EU official said, "The EU is considering appropriate action, including through the generalised system of preferences, through which Bangladesh receives duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market."
Bangladesh will go through a serious economic disaster if, for any reason, the GSP is scrapped, and it will lead to unemployment of a huge number of garment workers. Everybody concerned, therefore, must not attempt to take any action which will go against the interest of the workers. The same point applies to the US too, as its GSP for Bangladesh is already under review for similar reason.
Yet, the factory condition should not be such that is likely to cause death of any workers, employees or owners due to fire, stampede or building collapse.
On May 08, the managing director of Tung Hai Sweaters Ltd died because of suffocation caused by fire in his factory building, along with a few of his friends. This is not the first case of death of a factory owner by fire. The same fate could have caught the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza had the incident of building collapse have taken place at the later part of the day because the owners used to run his office in the building remaining personally present.
Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, had been present at the time of the collapse and luckily escaped.
Though not deliberate, yet, manipulative irresponsibility should not be allowed to be repeated to cause more deaths at work.
Two pertinent points here must be understood very clearly by all concerned. Firstly, the socio-economic condition of Bangladesh generally is of much lower standards than what a garment factory is providing to its workers. The condition is improving everyday due to the demand from the workers or from the buyers or from the interest of the owners who think of having better productivity from the workers and better price from the buyers by making a better factory and working condition.
Secondly, GSP benefits are being shared by factories, the buyers and their consumers. Factories usually get the greater market share without any additional monetary benefit which goes to the buyers and their consumers.
Yet, working condition must be improved further but somebody must not be expecting this to be raised to the European or American standards overnight. Salary of the workers increases every year by way of yearly increment which is being given by all factories. The government should re-fix minimum wages and scales every three to five years. I think, in spite of big hue and cry around, the issue of salary is not what demands the highest emphasis at the moment. This is safe workplace that deserves to get the highest emphasis. It should not be forgotten that the industry employs about four million people, who, if there had been any better alternative employment opportunity, would not have worked in this industry.
Looking into the incidents occurring and recurring, we can identify the causes of deaths: fire, suffocation caused by fire, building collapse, and stampede.
Here are some suggestions to avoid factory accidents:
1. Workers must not be asked to work in any building which does not have certification from the authorities concerned. This must be done through a permanent department working under the labour or textiles ministry. This department will be responsible for safe and secured operations of all factories and will have the right to close operations of the factories if they fail to ensure workplace safety.
2. Evacuation formula (drawn out of experience) should be strictly applied. If any factory or multiple factories in one building cannot be evacuated in less than five minutes, those should not be allowed to run.
With fair estimate, it is understood that evacuation requiring more than five minutes may cause stampede and casualty. And the height of the building should be considered in drawing the evacuation plan.
Unfortunately, none of the compliance regulators yet determined any such standard, instead had been talking about alternative exit only which is compulsory but not enough.
3. There must not be any kind of construction on the roof except utilities of the building itself.
4. The staircases should be enough wide and have adequate ventilation.
The present practice of giving responsibility to a temporary committee, which is made after every incident, must be stopped. The good factories and the bad ones should be clearly differentiated and those not having required safety standards must be closed down.
The writer is the managing director of Niponika Garments Ltd.